My unconsciously biased address book

The 20% problem

Earlier this year, I cleaned up my contacts and became interested in what the gender split would look like for my address book. Not only was it no better than my Twitter experiment from last year, the numbers were exactly the same. Of the just over 1,900 contacts in my primary address book, 399 are women. Last year, people I followed on Twitter were 79.7% men; today my address book is 79.9% men.

If the majority of leaders at most companies are men and if the majority of their networks are men (as mine are), then this is a self-perpetuating problem. This is hardly a new notion: a 23 year-old study concluded that “network mechanisms operate to create and reinforce gender inequalities in the workplace”; that study’s author, Herminia Ibarra, more recently referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s work on the subject of gender diversity:

[N]etworks run on “connectors,” people who are linked to almost everyone else in a few steps and who connect the rest of us to the world. … [Y]ou can reach connectors through someone you already know or through someone who knows someone whom you already know. (emphasis mine)

It really is who you know. And who I know is 80% men.

The 80/20 split is everywhere for me. People who follow me on Twitter? 81/19:

Source: Twitter Analytics.

Maybe LinkedIn is different? Spoiler alert: LinkedIn is not different. Interestingly, LinkedIn itself doesn’t know this: they don’t ask your gender when you sign up. I used to programmatically estimate the gender of my LinkedIn network. Of my 2,300+ contacts in my LinkedIn network, 23% are women. At least I’m consistent.

What now?

A few years ago, my favorite contemporary science fiction author John Scalzi wrote a brilliant post attempting to explain white male privilege. He came up with a rather lovely metaphor:

In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

What I like about John’s metaphor is not that it says you’ll win the game just because you’re a straight white guy, but that the game of life is inherently more difficult if you’re something other than a straight white guy. Once you become more aware of the obstacles placed in front of the non-SWMs, it’s harder to deny the fundamental truth of John’s post.

I’m a father of three, my youngest is my daughter. Once I’d taken Google’s Unconscious Bias training, it was hard not to notice all the subtle cues we’re surrounded by that reinforce the idea that it’s a man’s world:

In the professional context, address books like mine are just one obstacle among many that women face — and it’s hardly their biggest obstacle. But it’s a real obstacle nonetheless, and importantly it’s one I can directly work on improving. Much like the Unconscious Bias training helped me see things I wasn’t previously aware of and changed how I interacted with my colleagues, this network awareness led me to be more conscious of how I engage with women at work and online.

Next Steps

I suspect that many people will be similarly surprised at what the data says about their networks. Once you know your own ratio, I think you’ll be motivated as I was to make it better. That was the first step for me: awareness and commitment to improve. I reached out to several colleagues, men and women, to ask how they address this for themselves. Here are a few suggestions:

Understand Unconscious Bias.

Once “bias” is a fact rather than a stigma, you can get to work on compensating for it. The Implicit Association test was useful data that helped me accept that even though I’m married to a strong woman, am father of a strong girl, have spent years talking a good game when it came to championing women in the workplace, yes, I do in fact over-index “work” with “male” and “home” with “female”. (Whether you know it or not, odds are, so do you. Take the test.)

Know your own ratio.

Look at Twitter’s analytics and give Followerwonk a try. For that LinkedIn data I generated, here’s a blog post on how you can do what I did.

From the time I started this essay to today, every single metric I measured has improved. Knowing your own ratio will lead you to want to improve it.

Push for gender diversity and insist on a code of conduct at events.

One event I attend each year, ORDcamp, addressed this by asking for attendee nominations of people who “don’t look like you”. Zack and Fitz (ORDcamp’s organizers) progressed from <10% to 33% women in just a few years. (To their credit, they’re still not happy with a 2:1 ratio, and continue to work on improving the ratio.)

Avoid all male panels and all-male speaker line-ups.

Going forward, I simply won’t participate in a panel discussion that’s all guys. (Also? Panels are often terrible.)

Follow more women on Twitter.

No, I’m not giving you a list. Who’s interesting to me isn’t necessarily going to be interesting to you — and whether I listed 50 or 500 I’d be leaving out countless worthwhile voices. Seek them out. Use the ORDcamp mantra I cited earlier as your guide: follow people who don’t look like you.


A funny thing happens when you engage with more women (I know, I know — this is hardly rocket science): you become more aware of their experiences, more conscious of their challenges. Read one headline about harassment online and you might think it’s an isolated case; follow hundreds of women, you’ll learn just how common it is. And you might just be motivated to help make things better, in whatever small way you can.

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